Monthly Archives: June 2014

‘Might have been’: speculation in the biography; also, reading fiction autobiographically

In the first chapter of his biography of Charles Dickens (1990), Peter Ackroyd describes the death of Dickens’ infant brother and comments:

If the infant Charles had harboured resentful or even murderous longings against the supplanter, how effectively they had come home to roost! And how strong the guilt might have been. Might have been – that is necessarily the phrase. And yet when the adulthood of Dickens is considered, with all its evidences that Dickens did indeed suffer from an insiduous pressure of irrational guilt, and when all the images of dead infants are picked out of his fiction, it is hard to believe that this six-month episode in the infancy of the novelist did not have some permanent effect upon him. (18)

What are we to make of this technique, ‘might have been’? Probably, the ‘might have been’ will not be justified again (‘that is necessarily the phrase’) throughout the long tome of a biography. ‘Might have beens’ make for interesting reading – what is a biography without speculation? But ‘might have beens’ need to be made by a biographer who is fair and insightful and knowledgeable. (And I suspect Ackroyd has those qualities.)

Note also the appeal to Dickens’ fiction; every literary biographer does this; Adam Begley overdoes it in his new biography of John Updike, every scene from Updike’s life explained by a story or novel he wrote. It’s a dangerous business; so far Ackroyd does it in a suggestive and interesting way. But we’re all meant to know Dickens’ work, and he can refer ahead to characters like David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, etc – what of the writer people are not so familiar with – like KSP?

Louisa: the limits of biography


Brian Matthews, Louisa (Melbourne: McPhee, 1987)

Louisa is both an anguished reflection on biography and its problems and the story of the life of Louisa Lawson, mother of the more famous Henry, but a significant Australian literary figure herself, as editor of a woman’s journal, Dawn, and as poet and suffragette.

Frustrated not only by the gaps in the record but also by the inherent limits of biography as a genre, Matthews interrupts what is often a conventional (but good) biographical narrative with an alternative text, the reflections of ‘Owen Stevens’, Matthews’ alternative self:

Owen Stevens, the biographer’s untrammelled self, will say, do, essay and gainsay all those things that formal scholarship cannot condone and which life, unrounded by a style-sheet, uncompleted and unexplained by footnotes, is teeming.

The ‘alternative text’ also contains experiments in form, such as a short story imagining a woman from the 1970s returning to Louisa’s past, and a music-hall drama to convey Louisa in ways conventional biography would not allow.

I have no doubt Matthews expected or even courted controversy, and he did get it. The book sits as the new far end of a spectrum. It has not been taken up as the new way of writing biography, nor was it expected to. But it does demand fruitful reflection from biographers, scholars and readers on just what is permissible and what is desirable in biography.

In a sense, it is a book which wears its postmodernism loudly and, although it has aged well, it still feels to belong to the milieu when the postmodern was still shiny, exciting and the way forward. Today, nearly thirty years on, my feeling is that the biographer is able to wear the influence of postmodern more quietly. Some of the question and objections ‘Owen Stevens’ raises, some of his speculations, could be integrated with the primary narrative – they don’t need to be exiled and, by extension, highlighted.

The relegation of consideration of sources to some brief notes at the end is a strange move. Surely the whole point of the alternative text is to draw some attention to the scaffolding, to the process of arriving at the settled narrative of a biography. Footnotes are a good place to provide the reader with some awareness of the process.

In How to do Biography (Harvard University Press, 2008), Nigel Hamilton argues that it is only when there is an authoritative biography of a subject already published that a biographer is free to be experimental. Louisa Lawson did not have such a biography in 1987, as far as I know, and no doubt this added to some of the criticism Matthews received. On the other hand, the biography was praised as well, and for good reasons.

Tragically eluded: a quote on the fear of the biographer

What you encounter at last, after your metaphorical quest across regions of ice, might be not so much a visage as a sensation, an overwhelming feeling of frustration, of having been somehow tragically eluded; a feeling that includes the immense sadness with which the contemplation of an imperfectly glimpsed past suffuses the soul…

– Brian Matthews, Louisa, 296.

This is the great question that historians and biographers must face: is the past recoverable? Can we get past the fragments it has left behind to some sense of what it was?

I think of how differently people remember the same person who they all knew. Say, for example, rather innocuously, you get to talking about a former work colleague. To some, he could be a hero of sorts, a fine worker and a great contributor; to others, a man with a streak of nastiness. Who is right? I suppose both are right, but some might be more perceptive than others. How perceptive can we be about people we will never meet? And yet, the whole endeavour of writing and reading insists that we can, in some sense, know a person through the words they have left behind.

The temptations of autobiography and biography: a quote

This is the temptation of the autobiographer: to put the past into the shape it should have taken; to make yourself cut the figure you should have cut. Likewise, the biographer, in relation to his subject, may behave as avenging angel, remorselessly straighening the record, or as a scourge, reducing the subject to insignificance or mediocrity. But it is less likely that the truth will lie so conveniently at one or other of those extremes than that it will be intricately ramified through the whole spectrum.

– Brian Matthews, Louisa, p. 103

Coonardoo: preliminary thoughts on its place in Prichard’s work and life


Coonardoo (1929) is the novel Katharine Susannah Prichard is best remembered for, a tragedy of the thwarted love between a station owner, Hugh, and an Aboriginal woman, Coonardoo, set in the Pilbara of Western Australia. It was ahead of its time in its depiction of race relations in Australia, and surely confronted Australians with some of the ugliness of their racism at its time; inevitably, by today’s standards, some aspects of the book itself seem somewhat racist, with talk of evolution of races and the ‘primitive’ charm of Aboriginality.

In this novel, Prichard’s narrative voice has shifted significantly from that of Working Bullocks, Black Opal and The Pioneers, all of which are more similar to each other than to this novel. To me, those earlier three novels all have a nineteenth century sensibility and tone, while Coonardoo is decidedly modern. The precedent in Prichard’s own work is The Wild Oats of Han, which appeared the year before Coonardoo, despite being written right back in 1907. Unlike the others, Han is a personal and autobiographical work, and my favourite of her novels so far. But like Coonardoo, its tone is less sentimental and the voice feels more direct; the narrator is further back, without the same sense of presence and control.

One way in which Coonardoo connects to Bullocks, Opal and Pioneers is that each presents a community with at least the capacity to be a kind of paradise, under threat by forces of fate and characters who do not understand the paradise. The paradise could be an opal town where everyone is their own boss, threatened by capitalists, or a timber community threatened by the greed of the sawmill. In Coonardoo, the ‘paradise’ is Wytaliba Station, with its harmonious relationships between the whites and blacks, as set up by Hugh’s mother, Mrs Bessie. The characters who ‘understand’ the paradise love the harsh isolation of the station life and treat the Aborigines with respect; Hugh’s wife, Mollie, does neither. A cardinal rule of the paradise is for the white men not to take the ‘gins’ as a harem, as Sam Geary on the neighboring station has done; it’s partly borne out of rejecting exploitation but also partly out of anti-miscegenation. The community is threatened and ultimately destroyed by both the forces of nature – drought – and Hugh’s inability to cope with this cardinal rule. Before she died, his mother set up an impossible dynamic in entrusting Coonardoo (the character) with the duty to look after Hugh, while also requiring that Hugh not take her as his partner. And so it is that this paradise is doomed, while the previous three hold out against the forces of fate and evil and carry on, albeit transformed, and the hope resting in the next generation. (Of course, we might see a note of hope in Hugh’s daughter, Phyllis, carrying on the station life, albeit on the neighbouring station.)

The novel developed as a genre of the self, the individual; one of Prichard’s achievements is the rare feat of depicting communities convincingly in novels. She is always interested in many different characters, switching rather democratically between viewpoints, and representing the web of interrelations in a community. Most importantly of all, she strives to capture the essence of a community, its ethos and spirit, the values which hold it together.

Like most of Prichard’s novels, Coonardoo resists a biographical reading. She researched the novel in the 1920s, spending time on a station in the North-West, just as she researched opal mining, the timber industry and the circus for other novels. Some biographical questions still presented themselves to me as I read. What significance are we to give her naming the protagonist ‘Hugh’, when her own husband’s name was ‘Hugo’ (admittedly, everyone called him ‘Jim’)? Both are paragons of Australianness; and perhaps like the character Hugh, Hugo/Jim was troubled by demons he didn’t articulate. It would be interesting to discover if Prichard saw herself reflected in Phyllis, who arrives at the station in a ‘borrowed’ car in chapter 23, escaping an affair gone wrong in Perth, and sets out challenging the gender stereotypes of the station, starting with the wearing of trousers. It would not surprise me if these chapters echoed most closely Prichard’s own time on the station. Like Prichard, Phyllis seems determined not to marry, only to find herself charmed by a suitor; the wooing of Phyllis feels a little like Prichard’s description of her own experience in Child of the Hurricane. And finally, speaking of the ‘child of the hurricane’, Prichard’s designation for herself, born in the middle of a Fijian cyclone – Coonardoo and Hugh’s child is referred to as the ‘son of the whirlwind’. Perhaps Prichard enjoyed the resonance between her own origin story and the Aboriginal understanding of whirlwinds giving a child its spirit; or perhaps her own personal mythology even developed in response to this.